Street Photography ~ Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff, It’s The Story That Matters.

Street photography is about immortalizing a slice of life, a moment in time that will never happen again.

It was recently brought to my attention that a few things are ‘imperfect’ in a street photograph. A foot may be cut off or the horizon line is not straight. I thought that it was a valid observation from someone who doesn’t shoot street photography. The more I thought of it, the more I realized that this is probably one of the few genres of photography where the standard of success can be very subtle and often emotional. Because we work with such a fleeting moment that will never reoccur, we often need to compromise on the details. If you are a landscape photographer you have some latitude to work with, you can spend minutes or hours working on your composition, even come back at a different time if needed. In many genres of photography, the quest for so-called  perfection is attainable with vision, skills and patience.

For those who are not familiar with street photography,  it’s all about the gesture, the expression that tells a story. The moment will usually only last one frame, a fraction of a second. The success of the photograph will depend on the viewer’s reaction to it, not so much the technical merit of the shot. It’s about the ability to anticipate and see the story. Of course technical skills are also necessary to get the shot exposed properly and sharp.

I’m as seduced by a beautiful landscape as the next photographer, but when I shoot street I readjust my standards automatically. You could not enjoy the experience if you expected every element to come perfectly together in every image. I always scan the edges of my frame in the fraction of a second that I have to compose my shot. This prevents from including any major distraction, such as an antenna sticking out of someone’s head. You cannot control everything and some elements in the background will often add interest to the image, even if you where not aware of them at the time you pressed the shutter.

Since you have no control of a candid street situation, there is always a compromise. More often than not, you have the choice between a perfect composition or an interesting image.  If you are a street photographer, you know exactly what I’m talking about! It’s the moment that matters.

I selected a few images to illustrate my point. Let your eye be drawn to the subject before you read the caption.

As always, I’d love to get your thoughts on this!

Yes, moving a little closer or adjusting the framing could have made a stronger image by removing some elements on the right and adding a little space on the left. But would the dog have looked back on that shot?

I know that this shot has annoyed a lot of photographers. The arch is incomplete and the Pyramid is not centered. Granted, the famous landmark adds a nice sense of place. I only had a fraction of a second to get behind the photographer and get the movement of the woman walking out to get both silhouettes. Centering the pyramid was the least of my worries because the shot was not about the landmark, it was about the silhouette..

I know that this shot annoys a lot of photographers who don’t shoot street. The arch is incomplete and the pyramid is not centered. Granted, the famous landmark adds a nice sense of place. I only had a fraction of a second to get behind the photographer while the woman was walking out in order to get both silhouettes in the frame. Centering the pyramid was the least of my worries because the story is not about the landmark, it’s about the silhouettes.

Valerie Jardin ~ DC Street Photography-5

This qualifies as a street portrait. I had a little bit more time to work the composition since there was an interaction. His foot was cut off… Is it really what draws your eye? Or is it his beautiful and contagious smile? Had I taken an extra step or second to include the whole foot, his smile might have lost some of its spark and genuine feel.

Those awful plastic bags could be removed in Photoshop but why? This is a moment in time, Paris in the Winter.  The trigger subject was the man on the bench and the line of trees. If your eye goes to the plastic bags first, then it's not a good shot.

Those awful plastic garbage bags are everywhere in Paris. It’s a good thing for the environment and a bad thing for photographers. I could have taken a straight on shot and avoided the bags but I would have lost the interesting perspective of the line of trees. The bags could be removed in Photoshop, but why? This is a moment in time: Paris in January 2012. If your eye goes to the plastic bags first, then it’s not a good shot.

Did I cut off the chair on the right on purpose? No, I was focussing on the connection between the man and the pigeon.

Did I cut off the chair on the right on purpose? No, I was focussing on the connection between the man and the pigeon.

20 thoughts on “Street Photography ~ Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff, It’s The Story That Matters.

  1. Love your photographs, Valerie! I am partial to these B&W shots because of their timeless quality, but haven’t taken too many myself. I love the shot of the dog! It is so unusual to see one that size on the street by itself. It certainly is the focus of the shot, as is the older man and the pigeon. When I look at these photos I want to emulate them, not critique them for perfection. Like you say, they are a snapshot of a moment in time that will never repeat itself.

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  2. I am really drawn to street photography (especially your beautiful images!), but I find myself avoiding it because I worry about a lot of things (like invasion of privacy, awkward interactions, inconveniencing/offending people). Do you have any advice for how to overcome my fears? (And I apologize if you’ve already covered this somewhere – I’m a new follower of your blog – but please point me in the right direction if you have.) 🙂

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  3. Oh, thank you for giving me permission to make a not-perfectly artistically composed shot. I love to capture people doing something, but in my (workshop-induced) worry about composition, I tend to lose the best shot, the one I was aiming for. If the photographer is photographing something that tells a story, the details are simply the setting for the story. What might be missing (a foot) is just what Hemingway scrubbed out of his manuscript because it didn’t matter to the story. In your photo of the street, I found my eyes pulled along the line of sitting people, past the angle of the dog’s head, straight to the interesting young men “doing” something. And I wondered what they were doing, and why. This is what I want people to do with my shots. Thank you!

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  4. Everything you said about the photos in this blog are exactly what I saw. As an example, I never saw the plastic garbage bags in the park scene until you mentioned them! Inspiring.

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  5. Valerie,
    I like your commentary as much as your photography. Your catch it in the moment approach to capturing life as it is.
    I so appreciate your un-edited work…or as the modern day world calls it photo shop perfected work. It is so refreshing to see you hit the street with an eye for the moment. I love seeing the way you capture the smile and dis-regard what might be noticed by the critical eye that is not looking for the beauty of the everyday..the real in life.
    Fun to open my mail when you shout out.
    Jodi Sandberg
    A Little Bird on Grand.

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  6. Thanks for the insight. I find my street shots unappealing, because of their lack of emotion. Yours do appeal to me – it’s like I don’t see the imperfections because the rest works do well.

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  7. My lighting instructor, whose whole livelihood depends on getting the lighting and composition just right still says that often, expression and the moment trump everything.

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  8. I so agree with you. I personally, SP or for sake of simplicity candid photography to be a very lively experience. One has to be in the moment, part of the scenery to capture the “Split Second”. To capture it well as one sees, is the “perfection”.

    I love the shot of the Great Dane and the laughing fellow, the shot from Louvre is my favourite.

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  9. All the shots are wonderful, sure the distractions that you pointed out are there but your subject is where my eye goes to first. Then I searched around for the “flaws” but then I went back to your subjects naturally because they were so engaging.

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  10. Those that don”t do street photos will never understand the split second of a moment in time which makes street photo”s what they are…Love what you do …look forward to your emails..and your creations …Trevor..( Aust )..

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  11. Fully agree with you. Too many people look for what is perfection in their minds eye. I love your street photography and am learning from it. The moment, the expression, that is what matters:-)

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  12. What is perfection, is it the viewer perception of what they see! This post reminds me of a theme running through the film “The Last Samurai” in which one of the lead character’s searches for a way to describe the beauty of the cherry blossom, and it is only as he dies that he finds the word “perfect” as the most fitting suggesting that it is only in nature that we can find something that can actually be “perfect”. For me it is perhaps the “imperfections” which gives street photography its lure, we capture a scene in a micro second with all of it “imperfections” which make it the truest image and reflection of a time, place & players hopefully recorded for ever. So leave the “imperfections” in place, they add to the story. I once read that in ancient Japan artists, in their humility choose to place the smallest of imperfections in their work as they believed that only “God” could be truly perfect. My eye finds the “story” and for that I shall today, be grateful & humble for what I perceive.

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  13. Very interesting! In post process, it is easy to focus on the flaws and not the great aspects of an image. All of these images you’ve included are wonderful and you have made some excellent points, Valerie. Thanks.

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  14. Totally agree. Too often the emphasis is on perfection – which is not realistic anyway. Are we so scared of feelings that we have to focus on the composition rather than what is being portrayed? 🙂

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